KEENE — When Reid Jewett Smith visited the new Little Peaks Preschool and Early Childhood Center site in April, she knew it would become a special place for local children. Fiddleheads were just beginning to fan out from the ground next to the babbling Dart Brook, and the heart of Keene town and the surrounding mountains hugged the property in a secure embrace.
Now the beginnings of what will become the new center of Little Peaks lie at the base of the property, which slopes down from State Road 73 across from Keene Town Hall. The building’s bones aren’t far from the creek, which runs just past the center, and a curved dirt road from the center to the road provides enough setback to make Little Peaks feel both central to the city and part of it. of its own enchanted forest.
As Little Peaks Executive Director Jewett Smith stood with her back to Dart Brook and her face beaming as she looked back from the center of Little Peaks on Tuesday August 9, she dubbed it her favorite sight in the world.
Jewett Smith involuntarily stepped into her role as executive director. She just finished her PhD program this year, a mother of two in need of more long-term childcare options as she prepares to enter the full-time workforce. Her eldest attended Little Peaks last year, but the program only lasted three hours a day, which was not enough for her to have a full-time job. Full-time childcare with a nanny requires full income, Jewett Smith said. On top of that, there was no local nanny to be found.
As a 36-year-old woman, Jewett Smith said she was looking for a daycare that would help her children’s development and allow her and her husband to work. But she said that for generations, local women like her have not had a global solution.
“It usually falls to the woman to type and say, ‘It’s actually cheaper for me to stay home than to work and pay for full-time childcare'” she says.
That’s exactly what she had to do during the height of the coronavirus pandemic. Jewett Smith and her family moved to the area at the start of the pandemic, and she said the balance between work life and children was chaotic. With her daughter attending Little Peaks last year, she began looking for an executive director to develop the program. Although she holds the position for now, she sees herself more as one of the driving forces behind the establishment and operation of the new center. Then, when the center is operating full-time, 50 weeks a year, she can seek full-time employment – and the new Little Peaks Center will provide that opportunity for other mums.
“I’m kind of more here this year to open it, get it licensed, staff it, and then put my kids here and sail into the sunset,” she said laughing.
When Little Peaks – which was founded around 30 years ago – opens, it will grow from its current three-hour-a-day facility serving eight children to a full-fledged licensed daycare center that could start serving up to eight children. . babies up to 18 months, eight toddlers up to 3 years old and 15 or 16 preschoolers 3-5 years old. Jewett Reid hopes the new center will open next summer.
There will be an open house at the center at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, August 16 for people who want to see his progress. Jewett Smith said people could park at City Hall.
Little Peaks closed the land in mid-April and the building is going up rapidly. Last week the site was what Reid Jewett called “a concrete swimming pool.” This week the exterior walls are being put up and the interior walls are being framed. The speed of the project is largely the product of a number of private donations and community work.
Not only have local private donors provided a seed fund of $750,000 – which has now grown to $1.4 million – to launch the capital project, but many of the people building Little Peaks volunteer. Jewett Smith said the general contractor is a local who gave his time completely for the first year and a half of work. The project’s lawyers and architect also work largely pro bono, with several others working full-time for free. All of these people are involved because they want to give local families the opportunity to live and work here while providing meaningful child care for their children.
“We are very fortunate to bring in seasoned professionals from the region who have their skin in the game,” says Jewett Smith. “Like, ‘My grandchildren are going to be raised here; I volunteered at Little Peaks; my grandchildren have been here; my kids have been here’ – they all want this (Little Peaks) to be here and to last.
Thanks to the donations, Jewett Smith said the building will be solar-powered and have electric vehicle charging stations, a healthy food program that sources ingredients from local farms, and a building filled with all-natural, chemical-free, plastic design elements. -free and safe for children.
Little Peaks purchased the property for the new center from the Essex County Housing Assistance Program, which still owns adjoining land. Jewett Smith said HAPEC is considering building a few homes there, and that the two neighboring projects would meet two needs the Town of Keene identified in its recent strategic plan: more child care and more affordable housing for the community.
Level the playing field
Now that the Little Peaks building is largely funded, Jewett Smith said his board has refocused its efforts to ensure families of all incomes can send their children to the center. That’s why they set a goal to create a $3 million endowment fund that would be used to subsidize tuition for low-income families. Part-time Keene Valley resident Annette Merle-Smith provided $500,000 to start the endowment fund, and Jewett Smith said the Little Peaks board continues to raise money to give children of all socio-economic positions access to the same academic foundations.
Keene has a diverse income range, Jewett Smith said, with a regional median income of around $67,500 identified in a 2021 study. Jewett Smith, who has his doctorate in education, said children from families at high-income or college-educated children typically hear about 30 million more words than children from low-income families by the time they turn 3. She said if low-income families in the area could bring their children to Little Peaks before they were 6 months old, it would help level the playing field.
Jewett Smith noted that many local children, despite their families’ incomes, will end up attending Keene Central School. She hopes Little Peaks can give all of these children an equal foundation for their future schooling by providing them with healthy food, a connection to the place, and a strong curriculum. Additionally, she said, the capacity of Little Peaks could attract children and staff from across the region.
“We want it to be a really tough, cool, well-informed bunch of kids who have the same basic literacy and numeracy, because it’s just a ‘rising tide’ type situation where all the families — and everyone – are better off amid what will continue to be quite dramatic socio-economic diversity,” she says.
The endowment funding would also give Little Peaks the ability to pay their faculty of at least seven middle-class salaries, which she says could help counter the “feminized” language that often downplays the importance of early childhood education as “just play with the kids.”
“That’s not what professional, high-quality early childhood education is,” she says. “No. It’s not just a bunch of finger-painting moms.
A safe space based on nature
Jewett Smith said the Little Peaks board and staff were also considering the new program, which she said would be based on the cycles of the natural setting surrounding the center. She credited Katherine Brown, principal of Little Peaks Preschool, as being the “North Star” environment-aligned programming.
Inside the center, kids can create artwork, ride indoor tricycles, and even help with simple kitchen chores like washing dishes and mixing bread dough. But Jewett Smith said most of the children’s days will be spent outside.
She envisioned a pollinator and vegetable garden behind the center, with playgrounds for the different age groups that give them the agency to create and build instead of just having a stand-alone structure. She said there could be creek paths to the school and outdoor learning areas – maybe even a lean-to next to the creek for an outdoor classroom. She said the kids will spend time collecting fall leaves, identifying fern species and exploring the shallow stream, both when it’s frozen and when it’s flowing.
Jewett Smith said she came to the property the day after the mass shooting at a school in Uvalde, Texas last May. She said she had a “full parental collapse” imagine dropping your child off at school after a tragedy like this. But as she strolled among the ferns and admired the mountain views of the center’s new property, she felt peace.
“This couldn’t seem like a safer, happier, more secluded place to leave a child and know they will be safe and taken care of,” she says.